By Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon)
The 2017 season for FC Dallas had one of the biggest collapses in league history. Just look at that season progression chart above. With a happier locker room bolstered by a few key additions, Oscar Pareja is hoping that his team returns to the top of the West in 2018.
2017 in review
For FC Dallas, 2017 was the classic "Tale of Two Halves". Nearly everything was going well for FCD leading up to the Gold Cup international break. Dallas was sitting comfortably at the top of the standings with an 8-3-7 record (31 points), Mauro Diaz was regaining his fitness after tearing his Achilles tendon near the end of 2016, Dallas had taken Pachuca to the brink and nearly made their way to the CCL Finals. The only grievances at that point were the big offseason acquisitions, Cristian Colman and Roland Lamah were returning a little to nothing yield, but everything was pinned to the Diaz's return.
"Lamah and Colman will be fine once Diaz returns."
"Yes, Dallas dropped a lot of points with their draws, but that'll change once Diaz returns."
Nobody, could've anticipated what would happen next. Dallas returned from the Gold Cup break with an unexpected brace from Colman to steal a road victory against the Montreal Impact, but then, nearly everything that could've gone wrong went wrong. In the next game, at home nonetheless, Vancouver dismantled FCD 4-0, Walker Zimmerman got injured in the process and sparked the beginning of a 10 game win-less streak. Their lead talisman, Maxi Urruti would only score once during that stretch, after netting 11 goals in the games prior. Since the international break, Dallas would only see victory a mere three times and ultimately fall below the red line and out of the playoffs.
After watching his club crash their way out of playoff contention, followed by the embarrassment of the USMNT and their failure to qualify for the World Cup, President Dan Hunt doubled down on the club's commitment to the "Play Your Kids" mantra. Hunt said in an interview back in October:
“It starts with teams like Dallas that are committed to youth development. We have a big talent pool to draw from, but I think we've got to cast a wider net to identify even better players for the U.S. National Team programs, not just for FC Dallas, but for U.S. National Team programs, and then put them in situations that are going to accelerate their development and that starts at the youth levels having our Academy teams play against more international competition.”
The follow up to that has been swift. Starters and significant players had been jettisoned from the team, most notably Zimmerman, who had a breakout year in 2016 but seemed to never recover his form after his knee injury back in July. Veterans Atiba Harris and Chris Seitz were also let go, further signaling that a new era was about to ushered in. Zimmerman's trade to LAFC eventually turned into nearly $1 million in allocation money, which presumably was used to help acquire their biggest offseason acquisition Santiago Mosquera.
Mosquera comes with high expectations, getting the #11 jersey that was recently vacated by Fabian Castillo. Mosquera brings speed and flair to their attack that was sorely lacking in 2017. Dallas also rebuilt their roster carefully through homegrown signings of defenders Jordan Cano, Kris Reaves and midfielder Brandon Servania, and through the SuperDraft with attackers Francis Atuahene and Ema Twuamsi, who both are Generation Adidas players, thus not taking up any cap space.
None of those moves were a surprise, as Dallas has consistently been building their teams through their Academy, SuperDraft and the annual South American signing. What was surprising was the defense was rebuilt with players from Europe with Anton Nedyalkov and Reto Ziegler coming and looking to already have established themselves as starters.
It's still too early to predict, but I can safely assume that some variation of the 4-2-3-1 will be used this year. FC Dallas has experimented with a 3-5-2 as well, and depending on how quickly Mosquera can fit in and Diaz's overall health, I expect the 4-4-2 to make an appearance as well.
Goalkeepers seem to be the most stable and predictable projection with Jesse Gonzalez as the starter and newcomer Jimmy Maurer as the backup. It's unclear if Dallas will actually sign a third keeper, but they managed to navigate that relatively well last season with just two keepers.
The defense got the biggest refresh, with only one starter, Matt Hedges, returning to the projected starting lineup. Dallas has also brought in tweeners, players capable of playing several positions across the backline and have started experimenting with a 3-5-2 look, with two wingbacks manning the flanks. One of the concerns about bringing in foreign players is how they'll adapt to the physicality of the league, but given how aggressive Nedyalkov has played in this preseason, it looks like he's already adapted very well.
All eyes, of course, will fall to right back Reggie Cannon and whether he's up to the task of claiming the starter spot. Cannon only had a couple of appearances last year, but made the bench numerous times in 2017.
Midfield looks about the same with Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo doing the dirty work and the running, freeing up Diaz in front of them to do his magic. Victor Ulloa is a veteran of the league, and can spell either Acosta or Gruezo when needed and Hayes has shown flashes of promise to push for more minutes in 2018.
The attack is the biggest question mark on this team. It's presumed that the starting positions would be Maxi Urruti at striker and Michael Barrios on the right. However, DP Cristian Colman needs a big year to justify his $2 million transfer fee and will likely try to push for playing time either up top by himself or flanked next to Urruti. The left wing is the positional battle that looks up in the air at the moment. Incumbent Lamah had a meh year in 2017 and has two young players right behind him in 2018 #4 first round SuperDraft pick Francis Atuahene and Mosquera looking very ready to take a crack at the starting lineup.
This one is hard to predict. Dallas' rebuild could really signal this club challenging again for the Supporter's Shield or finishing 8th or 9th in the West. Dallas' move to go with youth is risky and could provide problems since the team lacks experience in difficult situations. However, the flip side is the freshness and the boldness that comes with the youth could propel this team back to their 2016 glory days that brought this team the historic double. (Shield and Open Cup.)
I do think Dallas has prepared itself well and better this year. Diaz looks strong again and the club has loaded the team with enough speed to compensate for his absence, should that come and they can shift to the 4-4-2 and just run teams to the ground with their blistering speed. A safe pick would be seeing Dallas come in 4th or 5th in the West, but nobody should be surprised if that also turned into 1st or 9th either.